The End of the Line


Smithsonian Magazine - - Con­tents - By Wil­liam T. Voll­mann

A hun­dred years after the last guns fell silent, our writer trav­els along the sto­ried Western Front to face the hard truths and hazy mem­o­ries of the “War to End All Wars”


Erich Maria Re­mar­que, All Quiet on the Western Front (1928)

ONE SUN­DAY MORN­ING IN THE 11TH Ar­rondisse­ment of Paris, lured by hy­drangeas, roses and pi­geons, I strolled past a play­ground filled with chil­dren’s voices.

The cool white Parisian sky made me want to sit on a bench and do noth­ing. Be­hind the play­ground a church bell tolled the hour, a crow told time in its own voice and a breeze sud­denly hissed through the maples.

It was a hun­dred years since the First World War had come to an end. Ear­lier that morn­ing, ap­proach­ing Paris by taxi, I passed an exit sign for the Marne, re­mind­ing me that in one of the many emer­gen­cies of that war thou­sands of sol­diers were rushed from Paris by taxi to fight the First Bat­tle of the Marne. Now a cou­ple sat down on the bench next to me and be­gan kiss­ing. Who is to say that what they were do­ing wasn’t a bet­ter use of their time than study­ing and care­fully remembering war? And how then shall I rec­om­mend the Great War to you? Let me try: Its hideous set pieces re­tain their power to bale­fully daz­zle us right through the earthen dark­ness of a hun­dred years! Let its sym­bol be the 198-pound Ger­man Mi­nen­wer­fer, which a Cana­dian eye­wit­ness de­scribed as fol­lows: “At night it has a tail of fire like a rocket. It kills by con­cus­sion.”

This essay, my at­tempt at re­mem­brance, is, like any of our ef­forts, pe­cu­liar, ac­ci­den­tal and lim­ited. I should have vis­ited Berlin, London, Vi­enna, Flan­ders, the city for­merly known as Brest-Li­tovsk, and the var­i­ous ter­ri­to­ries of the war­ring colo­nial em­pires. (For in­stance, the 295,000 Aus­tralians who fought, and the 46,000 who died, will be barely men­tioned here.) I would also have liked to see my own coun­try as it was in 1918.

In­stead, to see where the con­clu­sive fight­ing was done, I went to France to find what bat­tle graves I could: the Marne, the Somme, the Meuse-Ar­gonne, Ver­dun, the St. Quentin Canal. The “foun­tains of mud and iron,” in Re­mar­que’s phrase, had run dry; what about the ha­treds and mem­o­ries?


YOU MIGHT THINK EUROPE and its 40 mil­lion fi­nally dead or wounded were dragged into the muck by a se­ries of in­sults and bum­bling mis­com­mu­ni­ca­tions, a whole con­ti­nent at the mercy of fool­hardy mon­archs and mil­i­tary strate­gists who, “goaded by their re­lent­less timeta­bles,” as Bar­bara Tuch­man re­lates in The Guns of Au­gust, “were pound­ing the ta­ble for the sig­nal to move lest their op­po­nents gain an hour’s head start.” Not so, ac­cord­ing to many par­tic­i­pants. “The strug­gle of the year 1914 was not forced on the masses—no, by the liv­ing God—it was de­sired by the whole peo­ple.” Thus the rec­ol­lec­tion of a young Aus­trian sol­dier named Adolf Hitler, who en­listed with a Bavar­ian in­fantry reg­i­ment as quickly as he could, and served al­most to the end. “Over­pow­ered by stormy en­thu­si­asm, I fell down on my knees and thanked Heaven from an over­flow­ing heart for grant­ing me the good for­tune of be­ing per­mit­ted to live at such a time.” Could the war truly have been de­sired? That sounds as fatu­ous as the grin­ning death’s-head em­blem on a Ger­man A7V tank. But a Ger­man his­to­rian who de­spised the Führer like­wise re­mem­bered the “ex­al­ta­tion of spirit ex­pe­ri­enced dur­ing the Au­gust days of 1914.” For him, the war was one “of de­fense and self-pro­tec­tion.”

Like Hitler, the as­pir­ing British poet Robert Graves joined the col­ors al­most im­me­di­ately. He en­listed to de­lay go­ing to Ox­ford (“which I dreaded”), be­cause Ger­many’s de­fi­ance of Bel­gian neu­tral­ity in­censed him, and be­cause he had a Ger­man mid­dle name and Ger­man rel­a­tives, which caused him to be sus­pected. Other Bri­tons were as en­thu­si­as­tic as Hitler. “An­tic­i­pa­tion of car­nage was de­light­ful to some­thing like ninety per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion,” ob­served Ber­trand Rus­sell, the No­bel Prize-win­ning philoso­pher. Trot­sky, wit­ness­ing the ju­bi­la­tion in Vi­enna, re­marked that for “the peo­ple whose lives, day in and day out, pass in a monotony of hope­less­ness,” the “alarm of mo­bi­liza­tion breaks into their lives like a prom­ise.”

One might equally well blame diplo­matic in­com­pe­tence, Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian hubris or the par­tially ac­ci­den­tal mul­ti­plier ef­fect of a cer­tain as­sas­si­na­tion in Sara­jevo. And then there was Kaiser Wil­helm, with his mer­cu­rial in­se­cu­ri­ties, mil­i­tary fetish and with­ered arm—to what ex­tent was he the cause? In a pho­to­graph taken New Year’s Day, 1913, we see him on pa­rade, beam­ing in out­right ex­ul­ta­tion and tak­ing clear kin­dred plea­sure in wear­ing a British ad­mi­ral’s uni­form. (He was, after all, the el­dest grand­child of Queen Vic­to­ria.) Twelve years after the ar­mistice, the British mil­i­tary the­o­reti­cian Lid­dell Hart, who was shelled and gassed as a young in­fantry of­fi­cer at the front, made the case against the kaiser bluntly: “By the dis­trust and alarm which his bel­li­cose ut­ter­ances and at­ti­tude cre­ated ev­ery­where he filled Europe with gun­pow­der.”

The his­to­rian John Kee­gan, in his clas­sic ac­count The First World War, called it “a tragic, un­nec­es­sary con­flict.” If that fails to sat­isfy you, let me quote Gary Sheffield, a re­vi­sion­ist: “A tragic con­flict, but it was nei­ther fu­tile nor mean­ing­less,” his idea be­ing that lib­eral democ­racy in Europe de­pended

on it. Mean­while, in came the Rus­sian au­toc­racy and Turk­ish sul­tanate to com­ple­ment the em­pires of Ger­many and Austria-Hun­gary; how­ever nec­es­sary they thought the war, by en­ter­ing it they ut­terly erased them­selves.

Some war tourists may be dis­posed to am­ble along a more fa­tal­is­tic line, so here it is: Three years be­fore the slaugh­ter, a cer­tain Gen. Friedrich von Bern­hardi ex­plained the birds and the bees in Ger­many and the Next War: “With­out war, in­fe­rior or de­cay­ing races would eas­ily choke the growth of healthy, bud­ding el­e­ments, and a uni­ver­sal deca­dence would fol­low.”

Reader, have you ever read more in­spir­ing words to live by? A CER­TAIN IN­FLUEN TIAL TREA­TISE en­ti­tled Weapons and Tac­tics, pub­lished in 1943 by the British mil­i­tary his­to­rian and man-of-let­ters Tom Win­tring­ham and up­dated 30 years later, di­vides mil­i­tary his­tory into al­ter­nat­ing ar­mored and un­ar­mored pe­ri­ods. The Great War was some­thing in be­tween. Those glo­ri­ous un­ar­mored days when a suf­fi­ciently fre­netic cav­alry or bay­o­net charge could break through enemy lines still daz­zled the gen­er­als. Yet the “de­fen­sive power” of ma­chine guns, of barbed wire, and of the spade (for dig­ging) “had ended mo­bil­ity in war.” Mean­while, the fu­ture be­longed to tanks: “a brood of slug-shaped mon­sters, purring, or roar­ing and pant­ing, and even emit­ting flames as they slid or piv­oted over the ground.”

Un­der­es­ti­mat­ing this ar­mor­ing trend, Ger­man strate­gists pre­pared to fol­low the “Sch­li­ef­fen Plan,” named for Al­fred von Sch­li­ef­fen, chief of Ger­many’s Im­pe­rial Gen­eral Staff from 1891 to 1905, who con­ceived a rapid flank at­tack around French fire­power. It had to be rapid, in or­der to de­feat France and swing round against Rus­sia be­fore the lat­ter com­pleted mo­bi­liza­tion. Well, why not?

To strike France ac­cord­ing to timetable, one had to set aside the tri­fling mat­ter of Bel­gium’s neu­tral­ity. But who dreaded their ar­mor, their dog-pulled ma­chine guns? So the Ger­mans put on their knee-high, red-brown leather jack­boots and, in the first days of Au­gust 1914, marched on Bel­gium.

The First Bat­tle of the Marne be­gan in early Septem­ber. At this point the op­pos­ing armies still en­joyed some free­dom of

move­ment. The tale runs thus: An over-rapid ad­vance (à la Sch­li­ef­fen) of an al­ready dis­e­qui­li­brated Ger­man Army be­yond its line of sup­ply was an­swered by French troops—some of whom, as you al­ready know, were fran­ti­cally de­liv­ered to the front by Parisian cabs—and a strong at­tack on the Ger­man right flank led fi­nally to a so-called “fail­ure of nerve,” which caused the Ger­mans to re­treat to the Aisne River. Here they set­tled into trenches un­til 1918.

As one Gen. Heinz Gud­e­rian put it: “The po­si­tions ul­ti­mately evolved into wired, dug-in ma­chine-gun nests which were se­cured by out­posts and com­mu­ni­ca­tion trenches.” Take note of this Ger­man, if you would. He was young enough and flex­i­ble enough to learn from his de­feats. We will meet him again and again. UP ON HIS AR­RIVAL AT THE FRON T, Robert Graves’ com­man­der ex­plained that trenches were tem­po­rary in­con­ve­niences. “Now we work here all the time, not only for safety but for health,” Graves writes. How healthy do you sup­pose they were, for men sleep­ing in slime, fight­ing lice and rats, wear­ing their boots for a week straight? The para­pet of one trench was “built up with am­mu­ni­tion-boxes and corpses.” Oth­ers, Graves wrote, “stank with a gas-blood-ly­d­dite-la­trine smell.” From an Englishman at Gal­lipoli: “The flies en­tered the trenches at night and lined them with a den­sity which was like mov­ing cloth.”

Let the lit­tle vil­lage of Vauquois, 15 miles from Ver­dun, rep­re­sent the trenches. The Ger­mans took it on Septem­ber 4, 1914. In March of the fol­low­ing year, the French re­gained the south­ern half, so the Ger­mans dug in at the hill-crest and in the ceme­tery. In Septem­ber 1918 the Amer­i­cans fi­nally cleared the place. Dur­ing those three static years, a mere 25 feet sep­a­rated the bat­tle lines in Vauquois—surely close enough for the ad­ver­saries to hear each other.

As­cend­ing a short steep path through thick for­est, where strands of ivy ran up ver­dant trees ap­proach­ing the white sky with its sprin­kle of rain, I found on the sum­mit near an unim­pres­sive mon­u­ment the ru­ins of Vauquois’ town hall, which were for­bid­den to the pub­lic by means of red and white striped tape. Twisted rusted relics of agri­cul­tural equip­ment lay on dis­play in a kind of sand­box. Here one could look down over a checker­board of for­est and field to far­away Mont­fau­con, one of the enemy strong­points that Gen. John J. Per­sh­ing’s “dough­boys” would face in the great Meuse-Ar­gonne Of­fen­sive of 1918. And just be­low me lay a great crater in the grass, its depth maybe 100 feet or more, where at one point the Ger­mans had det­o­nated 60 tons of sub­ter­ranean ex­plo­sives, killing 108 French in­fantry­men in an in­stant.

I de­scended into no man’s land, pass­ing the hole where the church used to be, then up into the Ger­man po­si­tions where a steel-faced hole, al­most filled in, grinned be­low the grass. Ahead rose more for­est—none of it old-growth, of course, for by 1915 Vauquois and its trees had been im­proved into mucky cra-

Vauquois’ trenches (op­po­site) are no­table for their au­then­tic preser­va­tion. The stale­mate there led to tun­nel­ing and “mine war­fare,” for­ever al­ter­ing the land­scape.

ters. The fact that every­thing was now over­grown I had thought to be a bless­ing, but tak­ing a step into the green­ness I en­coun­tered waist-high tan­gles of barbed wire or dan­ger­ous bunker holes whose lips for all I knew might col­lapse be­neath me.

To pul­ver­ize po­si­tions at so near a dis­tance, a sol­dier was well served by the so-called trench mor­tar, which fired its pro­jec­tile al­most straight up, so that it would come down with great force upon one’s neigh­bors. And just here I found a trench mor­tar ex­ca­vated from its con­crete-and-steel-lined pit. Like most of the ord­nance still re­main­ing on the Western Front, it wore a black fin­ish—the work, said the lo­cal his­to­rian Sylvestre Bres­son, who was my bat­tle­field guide for a part of my trav­els, of post­war preser­va­tion­ists, for dur­ing its work­ing ca­reer it would have sported field-gray paint. The thing came up to my navel. Its bar­rel was more than large enough for me to put both arms in.

I pro­ceeded far­ther into the Ger­man lines, whose lin­ea­ments were mostly dis­guised by dan­de­lions, daisies, gold­en­rod, net­tles and other weeds. The hu­mid cool­ness was pleas­ant. How could I even hope to en­vi­sion the re­puted ten miles of bur­rows on this side? One of the trenches wound conveniently be­fore me, be­tween belly- and chest-high, its con­crete soft­ened by moss, and its next turn­ing cel­e­brated by a rusty bracket—maybe the rung of a ladder.

I clam­bered down into its clam­mi­ness. I fol­lowed a dan­de­lion-crowned mossy, wind­ing trench whose side tun­nels went darkly down. Here gaped a square pit like a chim­ney with dou­ble-braided strands of rusty barbed wire at an­kle height in the creep­ers just be­yond. I drew pru­dently back. A col­lec­tor might have liked that Ger­man barbed wire, which was thicker than the French ver­sion. (Bres­son told me that French-is­sued cut­ters of the pe­riod could not break it.) With its long al­ter­nat­ing spikes it looked more prim­i­tive and more veg­e­tally “or­ganic” than the barbed wire of to­day. How many French as­saulters with twisted and bloody an­kles had it held up long enough for the de­fend­ers to ma­chine-gun them?

Re­turn­ing to the path, I found more dark, filthy, stone­faced and metal-faced dugouts. Stoop­ing down to peer into a mucky tun­nel, I braced my hands upon a perime­ter of sand­bags whose can­vas had rot­ted, the con­crete re­main­ing in the shape of each bag.

Ev­ery known World War I vet­eran has died; the very no­tion of “remembering” the war felt prob­lem­atic. How could I even imag­ine the hellish noise? What about the smells? A French­man left this de­scrip­tion: “Shells dis­in­ter the bod­ies, then rein­ter them, chop them to pieces, play with them as a cat does a mouse.” BY THE CLOSE OF 1914, with the war less than half a year old, the Western Front stretched static, thick and deep for 450 miles. The East­ern Front took on a sim­i­lar if less de­fin­i­tive char­ac­ter, fi­nally hard­en­ing be­tween Ro­ma­nia and the Baltic in 1915. In a photo from Novem­ber 1915 we see a line of Ger­man sol­diers in great­coats and flat-topped caps shov­el­ing muck out of a wind­ing nar­row trench, grave-deep, some­where in the Ar­gonne For­est. The sur­face is noth­ing but wire, rock, sticks and dirt.

The gen­er­als thought to break the sta­sis us­ing mas­sive con­cen­tra­tions of ar­tillery. Some­how, surely, the enemy po­si­tions could be pul­ver­ized, al­low­ing charges to suc­ceed? Weapons and Tac­tics: “Most of the his­tory of the War of 1914-18 is the his­tory of the fail­ure of this idea.”

You see, ar­tillery bar­rages, to say the least, called at­ten­tion to them­selves. The enemy then thick­ened its de­fenses where needed. Fur­ther­more, the shelling tore up no man’s land, so that as­sault par­ties, in­stead of rush­ing for­ward, floun­dered in shell holes, while the enemy shot them down. In one typ­i­cal out­come, Graves’ com­rades “were stopped by ma­chine-gun fire be­fore they had got through our own en­tan­gle­ments.”

How­ever per­ilous it was to “go over the top,” the de­fen­sive po­si­tions were them­selves hardly safe. Graves writes time and time again about wit­ness­ing the deaths of his com­rades right there in the earth­works. He feared ri­fle bul­lets more than shells, be­cause they “gave no warn­ing.” On the op­po­site side of the front, Hitler emoted: “In th­ese months I felt for the first time the whole mal­ice of Des­tiny which kept me at the front in a po­si­tion where ev­ery n------ might ac­ci­den­tally shoot me to bits.”

And so their var­i­ous ar­mored im­mo­bil­i­ties stale­mated the bel­liger­ents. The British were los­ing as many as 5,000 sol­diers a week in what they called “nor­mal wastage.” Un­able to go for­ward, un­will­ing to re­treat, the ad­ver­saries tried to speed up nor­mal wastage. That is why, as early as the fall of 1915, the French and British de­cided on a quota of 200,000 Ger­mans killed or wounded per month.

“Thus it went on year after year; but the ro­mance of bat­tle had been re­placed by hor­ror.” That was Hitler again. He, of course, re­mained “calm and de­ter­mined.” THE GER­MAN AS­SAULT AT VER­DUN an­nounced it­self on Fe­bru­ary 21, 1916, with the det­o­na­tion of more than a thou­sand can­nons. Some­thing like 33 Ger­man mu­ni­tions trains rolled in each day. In a photo of a sec­ond-line ca­su­alty sta­tion, we see a wounded French­man sit­ting crookedly on his crude stretcher, which rests in the dark mud. His boots are black with filth; like­wise his coat up to his waist and be­yond. A white ban­dage goes bon­net-like around his head, the top of it dark with blood. His slen­der, grubby hands are part-folded across his waist. His head is lean­ing, his eyes al­most closed.

In a bunker near Ver­dun 100 years later I came upon a cham­ber whose rusty ladder as­cended to a cone out­lined with light, which sil­hou­et­ted some­thing like a gi­ant man­tis’ des­ic­cated corpse: the un­der-chas­sis of a ma­chine gun. Nearby ran an­other em­place­ment that Sylvestre Bres­son thought must be part of the Maginot Line, thanks to its newer con­crete. (I should re­mind the reader that this lat­ter im­pos­ing bul­wark was in­tended, decades later, to use all of World War I’s ad­van­tages of en­trenched de­fense against that World War II ag­gres­sor, Hitler. For why wouldn’t war haunt this same ground over and over again?)

A Rus­sian of­fen­sive against the Aus­tri­ans in the east, fol­lowed by a French at­tack at the Somme in July, fi­nally forced the Ger­mans to dis­en­gage from Ver­dun. In Oc­to­ber the French re­took its most mas­sive fort. The bat­tle, the long­est of World War I, fi­nally ended on De­cem­ber 15. Then what? Mud, corpses, duck­boards, trenches, bro­ken trees. French and Ger­man ca­su­al­ties each ex­ceeded 300,000 men.

But why dis­par­age all this mu­tual ef­fort? If its ob­ject was to kill mul­ti­tudes of hu­man be­ings, let’s call it a tri­umph, as ev­i­denced by the French Na­tional Ne­crop­o­lis at Fleury-de­vant-Douau­mont. Driv­ing down the hill, we came upon 15,000 white crosses flash­ing in the sun. I went out to wan­der those tomb­stones on the down-slant­ing grass where crim­son-petaled rosebeds ran along each row. Up at the chapel, French sol­diers in uni­form stood gazing down across the stones, the oc­ca­sion be­ing a change of com­man­der. “For us this is the most sa­cred site,” Bres­son re­marked. “If France could keep only one memo­rial to World War I, it would be this one.”

Th­ese 15,000 dead men were all French, but nearly ten times the amount of re­mains, both French and Ger­man, bro­ken and com­min­gled, lay in the nearby os­suary. Look­ing in through the many ground-level win­dows, I saw heaps of bones and skulls in the dark­ness. Some yel­low-brown frag­ments had been com­bined into al­most dec­o­ra­tive col­umns, as in the Paris cat­a­combs.

In the ed­i­fice above them stood a Catholic chapel with stained glass win­dows, and in a glass case, relics from the churches of de­stroyed vil­lages. This for­est meadow bore stone mark­ers to com­mem­o­rate the for­mer farm build­ings, wash­houses, gro­cery stores. Maples and cy­presses had grown 102 years high. I saw dark wa­ter in the deeper shell holes, grass in the shal­lower ones. The grass was in­grown with daisies, dan­de­lions and clover. Birds were singing. AS FOR THE FIRST BAT TLE OF THE SOMME— which was, more ac­cu­rately, a dozen smaller bat­tles, play­ing out over 141 days in 1916, from July to Novem­ber—that ac­com­plished kin­dred won­ders. Lid­dell Hart re­mem­bered the year as “the nadir of in­fantry at­tacks,” the as­saulters be­ing “al­most shoul­der

How many French

as­saulters with twisted and bloody

an­kles had it held up long enough for the de­fend­ers to ma­chine

gun them?

to shoul­der, in a sym­met­ri­cal, well-dressed align­ment, and taught to ad­vance steadily up­right at a slow walk.” How con­ve­nient for the ar­tillerists!

In 2018, Bres­son, who lived in the Somme, en­light­ened me about the residue: “The bomb dis­posal squad comes twice a week. Twice a week, even now! You know, if there was some live shell in Paris, it would be on the news. But in the coun­try, no­body cares. The farm­ers, they just carry it into the road.”

The Bat­tle of the Somme marked the war’s first de­ploy­ment of tanks (on Septem­ber 15, by the British), but they were in­tro­duced in dribs and drabs, their sur­prise ef­fect mostly wasted, their po­ten­tial nearly in­vis­i­ble. On Oc­to­ber 7, Hitler, his po­ten­tial equally un­fore­see­able, was wounded in the thigh, but he was not out of ac­tion long.

The Somme came to be re­ferred to as “the muddy grave of the Ger­man field army,” for Ger­man ca­su­al­ties were up to 650,000 killed, wounded and miss­ing. But the muddy grave was more in­ter­na­tional than that. Its lo­cal com­mem­o­ra­tors called it un es­pace mon­dial, a world-in­clu­sive space. The British took 420,000 ca­su­al­ties; the bat­tle’s first day has been called “the blood­i­est day in British his­tory.” The French lost 200,000 men. Although Gen. Dou­glas Haig, com­man­der of the British Ex­pe­di­tionary Force, claimed an at­tri­tional vic­tory, David Lloyd Ge­orge, Bri­tain’s soon-to-be prime min­is­ter, called it “a bloody and dis­as­trous fail­ure.”

In 1918 this churned-up waste­land, well ir­ri­gated with trench-blood and fer­til­ized with flesh, would be vi­ciously con­tested all over again. YOU MAY RE­CALL THAT 1916 was the year when the Rus­sians broke through the Aus­trian de­fenses on the East­ern Front, caus­ing the Ger­mans to halt their as­sault on Ver­dun. But the Rus­sians could only get so far. The czar’s army had al­ready lost half its strength in the pre­vi­ous year, and the new as­sault cost them more than a mil­lion ca­su­al­ties. Ac­cord­ing to Lid­dell Hart, this lat­est blood bath “com­pleted the vir­tual ruin of Rus­sia’s mil­i­tary power.” In July 1917, the Rus­sian Army shot its last bolt.

That pre­vi­ous win­ter, bled weak by Ver­dun and the Somme, the Ger­mans pre­pared a strate­gic with­drawal from a 20-mile salient be­tween Ar­ras and Sois­sons in north­ern France. A salient is in essence a bulge into enemy lines—a rei­fied hope of break­through. Aban­don­ing one may be a sad busi­ness, but also pru­dent, be­cause any such po­si­tion is vul­ner­a­ble on two or three sides.

Hence Op­er­a­tion Al­berich, whose first step would be the con­struc­tion of the best-for­ti­fied re­doubt in Europe: the Siegfried Line, or, as the British called it, the Hin­den­burg Line, Field Mar­shal Paul von Hin­den­burg be­ing the new Ger­man com­man­der in chief: griz­zled, calm, sol­dierly-look­ing, maybe even states­man­like. (In 1933, the same Hin­den­burg, now a grandly se­nile old fig­ure­head—and pres­i­dent of the young, doomed Weimar Repub­lic—would ap­point Hitler as chan­cel­lor.)

Hin­den­burg’s First Quar­termaster, and in many ways the guid­ing part­ner, was Gen. Erich von Lu­den­dorff, hu­mor­less and iras­ci­ble, who five years after the war would march be- side Hitler in the sor­did “Beer Hall Putsch.” (Hitler later pro­claimed Lu­den­dorff “leader, and chief with dic­ta­to­rial power, of the Ger­man na­tional army.”) Since it is to Lu­den­dorff that ac­counts of this pe­riod gen­er­ally as­sign agency, I shall do the same.

The Hin­den­burg Line has been called “the war’s great­est feat of engi­neer­ing.” Its var­i­ous belts, which bore such mytho­log­i­cal names as “Kriemhild” and “Freya,” ran for 300 miles. Half a mil­lion la­bor­ers toiled for four months to make them, dis­pers­ing the car­goes of 1,250 trains. The line be­gan with an an­ti­tank ditch, fol­lowed by “at least” five walls of barbed wire; “next came a line of de­fense an­chored by forts and block­houses bristling with ma­chine guns, and the fi­nal ma­jor bar­rier boasted an in­tri­cate sys­tem of zigzag trenches de­signed to pre­vent en­fi­lad­ing fire”—and this omi­nous de­scrip­tion, cour­tesy of The Ox­ford Com­pan­ion to Mil­i­tary His­tory, leaves out the St. Quentin Canal, a water­way that was up to 35 feet wide and 50 to 60 feet deep. Two ar­tillery lines brooded in the rear.

The with­drawal took place in Fe­bru­ary 1917. The Ger­mans left be­hind them what one of­fi­cer called “a des­o­late, dead desert,” Lu­den­dorff hav­ing de­ter­mined to make it into “a to­tally bar­ren land” in which Al­lied “ma­neu­ver­abil­ity was to be crit­i­cally im­paired.” First they re­moved any­thing they could use. Then they razed ev­ery build­ing, mined ev­ery street, poi­soned ev­ery well, dammed ev­ery creek, burned every­thing that would burn. The vile­ness of this pol­icy re­mains a mat­ter of opin­ion. Bres­son as­sured me: “You know, we did the same thing when we left Gal­lipoli, in 1915.” Hart de­scribed the with­drawal as “a con­sum­mate ma­neu­ver, if un­nec­es­sar­ily bru­tal in ap­pli­ca­tion.” But he was one of those re­al­ists who did not con­sider chlo­rine gas es­pe­cially cruel.

And so the front was not merely frozen, but steel-frozen. Thus it went through most of 1917, the year when Pres­i­dent Woodrow Wilson pro­posed, and the kaiser re­jected, “peace with­out vic­tory.” WHAT FI­NALLY DE­STROYED the long pri­macy of im­mo­bile ar­mored de­fense? First of all, a British naval block­ade, which had been in ef­fect since be­fore the first bat­tle of 1914, be­gan to starve the two ad­ja­cent Cen­tral Pow­ers of essential ma­te­ri­als like rub­ber and brass. By 1916 the star­va­tion was be­com­ing lit­eral. In a Ger­man photo from the late war years we see ker­chiefed, long-skirted women bend­ing over a rub­bish heap, pick­ax­ing its filth in search of any­thing nour­ish­ing to go in a grimy bucket. The pro­tag­o­nists of the Ger­man vet­eran Re­mar­que’s All Quiet on the Western Front, weak­en­ing on their “turnip jam,” count them­selves lucky when­ever they can snatch up but­ter and corned beef from the French po­si­tions they’ve as­saulted.

At­tack tech­nolo­gies now also be­gan to ren­der ma­chine-gun

nests and barbed-wired trenches, if not yet ob­so­lete, at least pen­e­tra­ble. Planes had barely be­gun to prove them­selves, but the prospect of a pack of high-fly­ing bomb­ing and straf­ing ma­chines took on nerve-rack­ing plau­si­bil­ity.

Tanks, after their first fal­ter­ing foray at the Somme, had been im­proved. One in­no­va­tor rec­og­nized that the fuel tanks should be less vul­ner­a­ble to di­rect hits. The British and French com­menced mass pro­duc­tion. Still, Ger­many de­ployed no tanks of its own man­u­fac­ture un­til the war’s last year, by which time its en­e­mies pos­sessed 5,000; it had just 45.

Here is how the Ger­man of­fi­cer Gud­e­rian re­mem­bered the First Bat­tle of Cam­brai, from 1917: “In a few hours the strong­est po­si­tion on the Western Front had been bro­ken,” he lamented. “The bells rang out in London for the first time in the war.”

One of the British mon­sters that so ob­sessed Gud­e­rian was named “Deb­o­rah,” des­ig­nated fe­male be­cause “she” sported ma­chine guns in­stead of six-pounders. I have seen her all alone at the Cam­brai Tank 1917 Mu­seum. The poor girl had been buried in muck un­til 1998. Her rounded-tipped quadri­lat­eral shape chal­lenges de­scrip­tion: sort of like a riv­eted roach or croc­o­dile, but not ex­actly.

The mu­seum staff had taste­fully en­closed her snout in gen­uine Great War barbed wire. Her bow and star­board side gaped jaggedly open, of­fer­ing dark­ness and the smell of oil; her guts were partly shat­tered and twisted by the Ger­man fire that killed four of her crew­men, who lay in the ad­ja­cent ceme­tery. But in her port flank two ser­vice-holes re­mained, one rec­tan­gu­lar, the other per­fectly round, so that the gray light of that con­crete room shone right through her. Her ripped, rusted yet sur­pris­ingly durable cara­pace made the hor­ror of the war it­self more durable. At her back­side lay two wreaths.

Im­me­di­ately ad­ja­cent to her pub­lic sep­ul­cher I found the Flesquières Hill British Ceme­tery, whose ground had been cap­tured in the Cam­brai bat­tle, lost soon after, then re­taken in Septem­ber 1918, at which point it came in handy for new de­posits. After look­ing out from the stone pav­il­ion across the green lawn to the great cross and past two lovely trees to­ward cloud-shaded fields with wind tur­bines on the hori­zon, I opened the heavy door that pro­tected the vis­i­tors’ book. One in­scrip­tion read: To those who gave their lives, and those who keep their mem­o­ries so well. An­other: Thank you all boys RIP. Four days be­fore me, some­one had come to visit his fallen grand­fa­ther. The most re­cent in­scrip­tion was in French: We will never for­get you.

The registry book told an­other story. This place once lay be­hind the Ger­man Flesquières Sol­diers’ Ceme­tery No. 2. After the ar­mistice, the Ger­man graves were moved to a “ceme­tery ex­ten­sion” (which would it­self be re­lo­cated in 1924). In their place British plots were erected. Such dis­re­spect must have in­creased the van­quished’s ha­tred for the vic­tors, but that was hardly the fault of 28259 PRI­VATE JOHN DAVEY CARTER ROYAL LAN­CASTER REG­I­MENT 8TH OC­TO­BER 1918 AGE 27, ON WHOSE SOUL SWEET JE­SUS HAVE MERCY.

A memo­rial at Vimy Ridge (op­po­site), near Ar­ras, the site of Canada’s most con­se­quen­tial bat­tle, is etched with the names of 11,285 Cana­dian sol­diers killed in France.

I copied th­ese words from his tomb­stone. Then I stood and took in the red roses, black-eyed Su­sans and pur­ple flow­ers. IN THE JUD GMENT OF All Quiet on the Western Front, “The sum­mer of 1918 is the most bloody and the most ter­ri­ble.” Not know­ing the out­come as we do, Ger­many tried to see the sunny side of the barbed wire. “The whole army took fresh hope and fresh courage after the Rus­sian col­lapse,” Hitler re­mem­bered. For after Rus­sia’s sol­diers de­clined to con­tinue pros­e­cut­ing the war, the weak-willed czar ab­di­cated, and the newly em­pow­ered Bol­she­viks sued for peace, which the Ger­mans granted at a strin­gent price in re­sources and ter­ri­tory. (Thus the in­fa­mous Treaty of Brest-Li­tovsk.)

And so the kaiser could credit him­self with the first great conquest of that War to End All Wars. “Out of the wreck­age of the czar’s do­min­ions,” as Gary Sheffield wrote in his his­tory For­got­ten Vic­tory, grew “a net­work of client states and spheres of in­flu­ences that added up to a new Ger­man colo­nial em­pire with enor­mous eco­nomic po­ten­tial.”

Now, wasn’t that some­thing worth in­vad­ing Bel­gium for? With Rus­sia im­plod­ing into civil war, Lu­den­dorff and Hin­den­burg could now trans­fer mul­ti­tudes of Ger­man troops to the Western Front, build new as­sault groups, strike the French and British at just the right spot, and at long last smash through the sta­sis of 1914-17.

As al­ways, haste would be called for. The op­er­a­tion de­pended on quick suc­cess—be­fore Gen­eral Per­sh­ing got his Amer­i­can troops trained and mo­bi­lized. THE UNITED STATES, goaded into it by the re­peated sea-mur­der (so we not un­rea­son­ably saw it) of our own na­tion­als by U-boats, had de­clared war on Ger­many in 1917. Amer­i­can sol­diers en­tered the trenches that Oc­to­ber, but didn’t be­gin lead­ing large-scale op­er­a­tions un­til 1918, the year when the ac­tors Lawrence Grant starred in “To Hell With the Kaiser!” and Nor­man Kaiser changed his name to Nor­man Kerry. Mean­while, thanks to Op­er­a­tion Al­berich, the Ger­mans had had a year to re­cu­per­ate their en­er­gies and thicken the Hin­den­burg Line. Se­cure in de­fense, they pre­pared to strike.

On March 21, 1918, only 18 days after Brest-Li­tovsk, the Ger­mans be­gan a new cam­paign, code-named “Michael,” whose ar­tillery bar­rage could be heard even in Eng­land. A Ger­man sol­dier called the noise “in­ces­sant and al­most mu­si­cal,” while a British ri­fle­man thought it sounded like “sheer hell.”

Since massed at­tacks pre-an­nounced by ar­tillery bar­rages had ac­com­plished so lit­tle through­out the war, Lu­den­dorff es­sayed what had worked so well for T.E. Lawrence against the Turks: in­fil­tra­tion, seek­ing points of least re­sis­tance. The idea was to break the British Army, and thus Al­lied morale, and so bring about an end to the war.

Con­cen­trat­ing their forces se­cretly by night, then ad­vanc­ing through fog and their own fresh-laid poi­son gas in small groups of storm troop­ers over 60 miles of front, the Ger­mans

achieved full sur­prise. A de­sir­able punch-through point was the town of Ar­ras, birth­place of the French Revo­lu­tion’s ruth­lessly “in­cor­rupt­ible” Robe­spierre, who in obe­di­ence to some form of golden rule was him­self fi­nally guil­lotined.

The train from Amiens droned past an emer­ald field of white cows, which gave way to rip­pled ponds, gray clouds, mown grass, white churches, trees. Here came the town of Al­bert, with a golden fig­ure on its high brick­work tower; then our tracks en­tered a cut be­tween the trees, came out again, and we glided through that kind of land­scape that cliché-mon­gers call idyl­lic.

Disem­bark­ing in Ar­ras, I found my­self in a cob­bled square, walled in by four-story build­ings, fac­ing the or­nate sweep of the town hall and the pale-yel­low Hô­tel de Ville, then a clock tower whose hands and Ro­man nu­mer­als were gold, and fi­nally the fa­mous bel­fry. Out­side the Hô­tel a mon­u­ment memo­ri­al­ized Ger­many’s vic­tims of 1940 and 1944, in this case Re­sis­tance fight­ers; on the square it­self two plaques dryly ex­plained that the orig­i­nal bel­fry dated from 1463 to 1914 and the Hô­tel de Ville from 1502 to 1914.

“Michael” quickly gained a mirac­u­lous 37-odd miles, so that it be­gan to seem that the sta­sis was bro­ken at last. Gud­e­rian called the feat “the great­est suc­cess achieved on the Western Front since trench war­fare had be­gun.” On March 23 the in­vaders set up shop in the Laon Salient, close upon Crépy, and be­gan bom­bard­ing Paris. The ar­tillerists fired pay­loads of 200 to 230 pounds ev­ery 20 min­utes for 139 days. They killed a thou­sand peo­ple and more. Smelling to­tal vic­tory, the kaiser de­clared a hol­i­day. YET FAIL­ING TO RE­DUCE A r r a s on the 26th and again on the 28th, Lu­den­dorff was com­pelled to re­lease his strain­ing grasp on the city. The date was March 30, two days after goit-alone “Black Jack” Per­sh­ing had fi­nally agreed to shore up the front with Amer­i­can troops.

On April 4, Lu­den­dorff called on fresh re­serves to resume the ad­vance, this time turn­ing to­ward Amiens, “the hinge of the Al­lies’ front,” where Jules Verne used to write his 19th-cen­tury sci­ence-fic­tion nov­els. The Ger­mans had oc­cu­pied this town for 11 days in Au­gust-Septem­ber 1914, and with their cus­tom­ary hu­man­i­tar­i­an­ism took lo­cal of­fi­cials hostage. At some point be­fore or after, the lo­cals for­ti­fied their cathe­dral’s an­cient trea­sures with 2,200 sand­bags. As for other prizes, Robert Graves re­mem­bers a “Blue Lamp” brothel for of­fi­cers and a “Red Lamp” for en­listed men.

In this cen­ten­nial year 2018, mas­sive photo-en­large­ments of Great War sol­diers, some in the bee­keeper-es­que gas masks of the pe­riod, most of them young, grim and hand­some, stared down from the walls of the train sta­tion and the de­part­ment

stores and apart­ment build­ings all around the cathe­dral square.

The first at­tempt to take Amiens be­gan on March 27. (The reader is re­minded that the dates of bat­tles, of­fen­sives, et cetera vary ex­tremely ac­cord­ing to source. I have done my shal­low best to ra­tio­nal­ize th­ese in­con­sis­ten­cies.) Lu­den­dorff ’s troops pen­e­trated the Al­lied front south­ward of the Somme River, ten miles from the city. The Ger­mans were driven back, but con­tin­ued to shell Amiens un­til June. Ac­cord­ing to a Miche­lin Guide from that time, “ru­ins ac­cu­mu­lated in the town and sub­urbs,” but a hun­dred years later, those ru­ins had been nicely smoothed over.

On April 9 the Ger­mans won an­other lo­cal suc­cess at Ar­men­tières—at which point the French and British, as ever, be­gan to dig in. Gen­eral Haig was wor­ried enough to warn, with un­char­ac­ter­is­tic gloom, “With our backs to the wall and be­liev­ing in the jus­tice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end.”

Fi­nally the anx­ious Al­lies be­gan to co­or­di­nate their ef­forts bet­ter, and ap­pointed the French Mar­shal Fer­di­nand Foch Supreme Al­lied Com­man­der over their joint forces. BY NOW THE KAISER’S TRO OPS had reached the town of Villers-Bre­ton­neux, a “Franco-British junc­tion” some ten miles from Amiens. Two Aus­tralian brigades stopped them, but 20 days later, em­ploy­ing tanks and gas, the Ger­mans suc­ceeded. As Sylvestre Bres­son, my guide, tells the tale, “The Al­lies now found them­selves in trou­ble, for Villers-Bre­ton­neux was the last de­fen­sive bul­wark on the Amiens road. The fol­low­ing night, the Aus­tralian bat­tal­ions led a mag­nif­i­cent head­long at­tack,” which ul­ti­mately re­pelled the in­vaders. In a “2018 spe­cial edi­tion” com­mem­o­ra­tive pam­phlet pub­lished by the Com­munes of the Somme Val­ley, this or­ga­ni­za­tion’s pres­i­dent wrote: “Let’s never for­get Aus­tralia.”

The memo­rial to the vic­tors (1,200 of whom died on that night) lies not far from a lit­tle roadside sign mark­ing the place where the “Red Baron” Man­fred von Richthofen, Ger­many’s ace fighter pi­lot, was shot dead on April 21, 1918. Be­neath the sign I saw a sty­ro­foam “100” and some fake flow­ers left by Aus­tralians; this I knew be­cause my taxi driver, whose fam­ily hailed from the west, had chauf­feured them out here just a few days be­fore. He had never heard of this site un­til then. He had grand­par­ents in the Re­sis­tance, in the Sec­ond World War, but as for the First World War, that was too long a time ago, he re­marked, flash­ing one tanned skinny arm away from the steer­ing wheel.

“Peo­ple around here don’t even talk about it very much,” he said of the Great War. He thought that I and my sis­ter, who had ac­com­pa­nied me on this trip and served, when needed, as my French trans­la­tor, were Aus­tralians. “Ev­ery fam­ily from Aus­tralia has some ques­tion about the war,” he re­marked.

At the Villers-Bre­ton­neux Mil­i­tary Ceme­tery and Memo­rial roses bloomed on a rolling hill-crest sowed with tomb­stones. The in­scrip­tions were more per­son­al­ized than many, DEARLY LOVED SON be­ing in fre­quent ev­i­dence. This com­plex was inau­gu­rated in 1938, just in time to be shot up in the next war—or, as a plaque ex­plained, “on the fir­ing line.” (The cul­prit was a Nazi tank.) There was a grand tower erected TO THE GLORY OF GOD AND IN MEM­ORY OF THE AUS­TRALIAN IM­PE­RIAL FORCE IN FRANCE AND FLAN­DERS 1916-1918 AND OF ELEVEN THOU­SAND WHO FELL IN FRANCE AND HAVE NO KNOWN GRAVE.

Had they all been prop­erly cat­a­loged, would it have been any bet­ter for them? For a fact, their sur­vivors might have gained what we now call “clo­sure,” although one ques­tion does arise: How much in­for­ma­tion about the fallen is too much?

The first Somme of­fen­sive opened when British tun­nel­ers det­o­nated

60,000 pounds of ex­plo­sives be

neath Ger­man po­si­tions, creat

ing La Grande Mine, the war’s largest crater.

“I do a lot of re­search for the fam­i­lies when they come,” Bres­son told me. “Some­times the sto­ries told in the fam­i­lies are dif­fer­ent from the truth, thanks to em­bel­lish­ment, ex­ag­ger­a­tion, and after one, two or three gen­er­a­tions es­pe­cially. But the archives tell the truth.

“A cou­ple of years ago I had a tour with a cou­ple from Aus­tralia. They wanted to visit the grave of a great-un­cle. Be­fore they came they gave us the name and I was able to find a lot of in­for­ma­tion about the great-un­cle. But he wasn’t killed in ac­tion. He was killed in a stupid ac­ci­dent. He was at rest with his reg­i­ment and he was shoot­ing ducks with one of his friends and his friend shot him by ac­ci­dent. It was lit­er­ally writ­ten killed shoot­ing ducks by ac­ci­dent.

“So on the day of the tour I met them and the story they knew was: He was killed on the bat­tle­field, killed by Ger­man snipers when crawl­ing un­der the barbed wire. Well, they were very moved to come. We went to the ceme­tery and left flow­ers there, and I told them they could get more in­for­ma­tion. I did not tell them di­rectly. They were com­ing from the other side of the world.”

In one of ever so many rows in that ceme­tery, be­neath the em­blem of the Aus­tralian Im­pe­rial Forces, lay 6733 PRI­VATE H. J. GIBB 14TH BN. AUS­TRALIAN INF. 7TH JUNE 1918 AGE 45, and after a cross came the motto that some­one had cho­sen for him: PEACE AFTER STRIFE. What­ever the cir­cum­stances of that un­timely death, whether he had bravely held a po­si­tion, saved a com­rade, bay­o­neted three Ger­mans or died while shoot­ing ducks, un­timely it was, and I felt sorry. THE GER­MANS, hav­ing been frus­trated at Amiens (but never mind: they would break through on a June day in 1940), swung to­ward Paris, even­tu­ally com­ing within 37 miles of the city. They had drilled a deep salient into French and British

lines, but it wasn’t enough. The his­to­rian Gor­don Craig writes that the Ger­man of­fen­sive “was bound to be dis­as­trous after the enemy had re­cov­ered,” and that in­deed it “de­gen­er­ated by June into a se­ries of sep­a­rate thrusts, un­co­or­di­nated and un­pro­duc­tive.”

De­clin­ing to give up, Lu­den­dorff’s troops com­menced Op­er­a­tion Blücher, as­sisted by al­most 4,000 Krupp guns, shelling and shat­ter­ing the French Sixth Army. Un­for­tu­nately for the Ger­mans, their newest enemy was now in the field. The day after Blücher be­gan, the Amer­i­cans coun­ter­at­tacked. The U.S. First In­fantry cap­tured 200 Ger­mans and buried 199 Amer­i­cans, and im­me­di­ately won a vic­tory in the vil­lage of Cantigny.

At ob­ser­va­tion post “Penn­syl­va­nia,” First Lt. Daniel Sar­gent of the 5th Field Ar­tillery Reg­i­ment re­ported, “The ground was pounded to dust by our shells—all that was vis­i­ble was the heavy smoke.” The divi­sion’s com­man­der, Gen. Robert Lee Bullard, called this “the first se­ri­ous fight made by Amer­i­can troops in France,” which was “greeted en­thu­si­as­ti­cally as a won­der­ful suc­cess.” Why not? There were lots of corpses. As a cer­tain Cap­tain Austin wrote home: “When the wind is right you can smell Cantigny two miles away.” FOR LU­DEND ORFF this “won­der­ful suc­cess” must have been an in­cite­ment to hurry up. On the first day of Blücher his troops gained 13 miles, un­heard of in the for­mer static years. Hav­ing crossed the Vesle, they took Sois­sons—although they now kept fac­ing more tank at­tacks. “Just think a mo­ment!” cried Gud­e­rian, wis­en­ing up. “Five tanks with crews amount­ing to ten men had been able to re­duce an en­tire divi­sion to disor­der.”

By June 4, with 30 miles now to their credit, they had reached the Marne at Château-Thierry. What must they have felt upon find­ing them­selves back where they had been in 1914? But that was the way of the Great War: Fight and die along static lines. Then do it all over. Thus July’s of­fer­ing: the Sec­ond Bat­tle of the Marne. The Ox­ford Com­pan­ion to Mil­i­tary His­tory re­marks: “Just as the Marne had proved the high wa­ter mark of Ger­man suc­cess in 1914, so it did in 1918.”

Hap­pily un­aware of how their of­fen­sive would play out, the Ger­mans still imag­ined them­selves on course for the cap­i­tal. To and fro in the trenches rushed that busy dis­patch run­ner Adolf Hitler. But now the French rushed up tanks, ac­com­pa­nied by rapid mo­bile truck­loads of in­fantry. As the Amer­i­can Bat­tle Mon­u­ments Com­mis­sion told it: “Re­spond­ing to ur­gent pleas from the French, Per­sh­ing or­dered the Amer­i­can 2nd and 3rd Di­vi­sions into the line in re­lief of the French Sixth Army.” “NOTH­ING ON EARTH,” wrote in­fantry­man Percy Clare of Bri­tain’s 7th East Sur­rey Reg­i­ment, “is as me­lan­choly as a jour­ney over a re­cently-fought bat­tle­field, es­pe­cially on the day of ac­tion. . . . The lust of killing has burned out . . . Here is a young Sec­ond Lieu­tenant on his back. . . . the jagged ends of his thigh bones pro­trud­ing through his torn breeches. No, he felt no pain. Stick­ing from his pocket is a let­ter to a woman.” That di­ary en­try dates back to the Bat­tle of Ar­ras, in April 1917. Com­pa­ra­ble hor­rors filled Château-Thierry 13 months later.

A cen­tury after that, the me­lan­choly kept ev­ery­where green. Here at the bank of the gen­tle gray-green Marne, where white swans were float­ing and very oc­ca­sion­ally duck­ing in their heads, I looked across the wa­ter to houses, apart­ments and in­dus­trial ed­i­fices, once more hardly able to feel that the war had come here. The river was barely swirling. It ap­peared an easy swim to the other side of town.

Be­side me stood an in­con­spic­u­ous waist-high gran­ite marker erected in 1921: a ta­per­ing plinth with a hel­met on top. One of many fash­ioned by the sculp­tor Paul More­auVau­thier, it marked the limit of the enemy ad­vance. There had been a whole line of th­ese mem­ory stones. In 1940, when the Ger­mans re­turned thanks to Hitler, cer­tain Ger­man com­man­ders chose to re­move them en­tirely. Oth­ers, ev­i­dently proud of what the kaiser’s troops had ac­com­plished in the Great War, left them but erased the in­scrip­tions.

When I came upon the Château-Thierry Amer­i­can mon­u­ment, a white stone colon­naded ed­i­fice hon­or­ing the Amer­i­can di­vi­sions that helped re­pel the Ger­man ad­vance, it felt just like com­ing home, for here alone of all the Western Front sites I vis­ited the en­trant had to empty his pock­ets and pass through a metal de­tec­tor. As they say, free­dom isn’t free.

My­self, I pre­ferred the sim­pler, sad­der truth of the Aisne-Marne Amer­i­can Ceme­tery. Sum­mer green, sum­mer clouds, so many birds. Driv­ing up a long av­enue lined with rose­bushes, we met a blue-capped gar­dener who was break­ing out a lawn mower. From the burial registry in the Vis­i­tors’ Room, I chose for re­mem­brance Plot A Row 3 Grave 72, the grave where lay Ed­mond P Maes, Pri­vate, from Mas­sachusetts. He served in the 101st Field Ar­tillery Reg­i­ment, 26th Divi­sion, and fell on 23 July 1918.

Lines of mar­ble crosses curved in par­al­lels on the rich green grass, wrap­ping around a hill of dark green for­est. The pi­geons were call­ing, the lawn mower dron­ing far away. Over­look­ing the graves was a chapel (slightly scarred by the fol­low­ing world war) whose walls were en­graved with the names of the miss­ing. Once in a great while there would be a rosette made to the left of the name of some­one who was “found,” such as LUPO FRAN­CIS PVT 18th INF 1st DIV July 21 1918 Ohio.

In a poem from the month when the slaugh­ter fi­nally stopped, the dec­o­rated British sol­dier Siegfried Sas­soon ad­vised his British read­ers, “when you are stand­ing at your hero’s grave,” to re­mem­ber “the Ger­man sol­diers who were loyal and brave.” I asked to see a ceme­tery of our for­mer en­e­mies. “The Ger­man ceme­ter­ies are dif­fer­ent,” ex­plained Bres­son. “There was a strong an­i­mos­ity to­ward them, so in that time the Ger­man ceme­ter­ies were al­ways set away, on a back road, whereas our ceme­ter­ies were set on the top of the hill so they

Al­lied troops

twice held off a Ger­man ad­vance on the Marne, in 1914 and 1918. Op­po­site: A French WWI re-en­ac­tor at an air show near the Marne


can be seen from miles away. From the Ger­man per­spec­tive the First and Sec­ond World Wars are so linked, like one war. The Ger­mans still feel ashamed of what they did to the Jews, so they don’t have any mo­ti­va­tion to visit their sol­diers.”

In­deed the nearby Ger­man ceme­tery was dis­crete, out of sight from the vic­tors’ graves, and in­stead of white, the crosses, thicker-armed than ours, were gray (in some ceme­ter­ies they were black). I saw a very few oval-tipped slabs with the Jewish star, as for Fritz Stern, grenadier. (As a spe­cial re­ward for their ser­vice in the Great War, the Nazis would de­port some Jewish veter­ans in pas­sen­ger train car­riages rather than freight cars, their des­ti­na­tion of course be­ing the same as for the oth­ers.)

Not far away stood a cross for Un­terof­fizier Peter La­tour and In­fan­ter­ist Ul­rich Led­erer and on the other side Ein un­bekan­nter Deutscher Sol­dat (an un­known Ger­man sol­dier) and for Vize­feld­webel Franz Stief­vater—yes, four men buried un­der one cross. In this soil lay 8,630 bod­ies. In the sprawl­ing Amer­i­can ceme­tery ad­ja­cent there were not quite 2,300.

Leaf­ing through the vis­i­tors’ book, my sis­ter dis­cov­ered that an Amer­i­can with a mil­i­tary af­fil­i­a­tion (I will not give his name) had made a fin­ger­print in what ap­peared to be real blood, and left a sneer­ing English-lan­guage in­scrip­tion. A GER­MAN AT TACK OF JULY 14 was hope­fully named the Siegges­turm, or

“Turn of Vic­tory,” but Lu­den­dorff was fresh out of vic­to­ries. The next day he launched his fi­nal of­fen­sive, aim­ing at

Reims. Three days after that, Gen­er­als

Foch and Pé­tain coun­ter­at­tacked on the

Marne, close by Villers-Cot­terêts—by sur­prise, with tanks again, and to good ef­fect.

July 18 marked the be­gin­ning of Mar­shal Foch’s coun­terof­fen­sive. “Although the Ger­mans fought stub­bornly to the end, they were hence­forth al­ways on the de­fen­sive,” re­called Lt. John Clark, an Amer­i­can eye­wit­ness to the bat­tle for Sois­sons.

On Au­gust 8 came what Lu­den­dorff would call “the black day of the Ger­man Army,” when he re­al­ized “the war must be ended.” By then a British tank bri­gade had helped re­duce the Ger­man-held strong­hold of Moreuil. One British ma­jor took a spin “in one of those huge ar­moured cars, and found it most dis­agree­ably hot; but I felt a sense of de­light­ful se­cu­rity when I heard the bul­lets rat­tling against the steel walls.”

Now be­gan the Bat­tle of Amiens: Aus­tralians, Cana­di­ans, French and British all fight­ing to­gether. Gen­eral Haig com­menced with a tank at­tack 20 miles wide and 456 (or if you like 552) metal mon­sters thick; he achieved ut­ter sur­prise. Ger­man ca­su­al­ties may have been three times the Al­lied ones. In his mem­oirs, Gud­e­rian wrote: “Even now old-timers like us re­live that feel­ing of im­pend­ing doom which over­took us on that day in Au­gust.”

On Au­gust 21 the British drove to­ward Ba­paume and Al­bert, re­duc­ing both; on Septem­ber 1 Péronne fell to the Aus­tralians. How would all this cap­tured ter­ri­tory have ap­peared in early au­tumn 1918? “De­serted,” re­called Capt. C.N. Lit­tle­boy, a British com­man­der of the Sher­wood Foresters. “Bleak, dev­as­tated.” Con­tin­u­ing east­ward, Lit­tle­boy saw “a derelict Tank, a dead horse, a ri­fle stuck up­right in the ground.”

In 2018, driv­ing over this same sad old Somme coun­try, I thought the rolling hills and sky could al­most have been some­where in east­ern Wash­ing­ton State, maybe around Pull­man. We as­cended what ap­peared to be the cur­va­ture of the earth it­self, every­thing gen­tly, evenly fall­ing off; here came Mor­lan­court; we kept on High­way D42; then ahead stood three trees, to guard the edge of the world. THE SHELLING OF PARIS fi­nally ended on Au­gust 9.

On Septem­ber 14, after con­tin­ued Al­lied gains, the Aus­tri­ans sent a peace note. Five days later, the Turk­ish front col­lapsed in Pales­tine. On the 21st, the Croa­t­ians hung out their flag. On the 24th, the Hun­gar­i­ans rose up and called for in­de­pen­dence from Austria. On the 28th, Bul­garia fell. A day after that, Lu­den­dorff had a “fit”—per­haps a mi­nor stroke.

Now at last Mar­shal Foch called for a co­or­di­nated se­ries of as­saults upon the creak­ing Hin­den­burg Line: on Septem­ber 26 in the Meuse-Ar­gonne For­est, the Amer­i­cans with 411 tanks and the French with 654; on the 27th, the British, launch­ing the Sec­ond Bat­tle of Cam­brai (they would take their ob­jec­tive on the 9th); on the 28th, the Bel­gians in Flan­ders, on the 29th, more French and British at­tacks.

The Meuse-Ar­gonne Of­fen­sive, fought by Per­sh­ing’s First Army un­der Foch’s over­all co­or­di­na­tion, was in­tended to breach the Hin­den­burg Line west­ward of Ver­dun. One his­tory calls it “the big­gest lo­gis­ti­cal un­der­tak­ing in the his­tory of the U.S. Army, be­fore or since.”

Six French di­vi­sions as­sisted 22 Amer­i­can in­fantry di­vi­sions, most of which had not yet proven them­selves in bat­tle. (By the end, more than 90 Al­lied di­vi­sions par­tic­i­pated in the fight.) “The Ger­mans,” the pre­vi­ous source con­tin­ues, “had cre­ated four suc­ces­sive, mu­tu­ally sup­port­ing de­fen­sive lines, linked by trenches and in­ter­lock­ing arcs of fire.”

The at­tack be­gan at 5:30 in the morn­ing on Septem­ber 26. Its log­i­cal re­sult was the Meuse-Ar­gonne Amer­i­can Ceme­tery, the most pop­u­lated Amer­i­can ne­crop­o­lis in Europe, with 14,246 buri­als. Which should I sin­gle out? In one row of mar­bled crosses on a field walled in by trees, ac­com­pa­nied by an­other field of crosses and then more of the same, HERE RESTS IN HON­ORED GLORY AN AMER­I­CAN SOL­DIER KNOWN BUT TO GOD—though never to his hop­ing, won­der­ing, fi­nally de­spair­ing fam­ily, who when I read this in­scrip­tion in 2018 must have all gone un­der­ground them­selves.

The U.S. 35th Divi­sion man­aged to take that ghastly old con­cre­tion of trench-line sta­sis, Vauquois, bom­bard­ing, ma­chine-gun­ning and gassing the Ger­mans while over­run­ning them from be­hind, and even con­tin­u­ing an­other 1.5 miles north-north­west, to­ward Varennes and Cheppy. Yes, they broke that hor­ror and hur­ried on.

But now, when from a promi­nence of fos­silized sand­bags at Vauquois I gaze down into a steep nar­row dugout con­nected to a tun­nel, a beech tree out­grasp­ing from the top and a cloud of midges ex­pand­ing above my head, it seems the night­mare re­mains. In the grass around me, crowded by trees with singing birds, in dugouts with their side tun­nels go­ing who knows where, how much hu­man craft, cun­ningly, ma­li­ciously em­ployed to maim and mur­der still lies ready to harm? Yet I feel grate­ful that this is so. Here is one of the Great War’s most ac­cu­rate mon­u­ments.

At Cheppy, where there is now a Mis­souri Memo­rial, the 35th Divi­sion, as­sisted by Col. Ge­orge S. Pat­ton’s 304th Tank Bri­gade (Pat­ton was wounded here), smashed through the Hin­den­burg Line. Varennes, where in 1791 Louis XVI and his fam­ily were cap­tured in their coach, fell to the Amer­i­cans by about 2 p.m., with the help of in­fantry, Re­nault tanks and the 28th Na­tional Guard Divi­sion, known as the Penn­syl­va­ni­ans.

Hence the Penn­syl­va­nia Mon­u­ment, a court­yard­like struc­ture of white stone and con­crete with a dark bell on an ea­gle-cor­nered plinth. Its motto runs: THE RIGHT IS MORE PRE­CIOUS THAN PEACE. It’s a very pretty mon­u­ment. Had I fought in the 28th, or wished to show ap­pre­ci­a­tion for its men, I would doubt­less be pleased. As it is, my pref­er­ence on war me­mo­ri­als is this: Give me an hon­est grave­yard any­time. Or give me that foul, barbed-wire-toothed hole in the ground, Vauquois. I don’t want any sen­ti­ments. AT THE BE­GIN­NING OF THE WAR , tak­ing and hold­ing ter­ri­tory up to the Meuse River in­volved “the tough­est fight­ing” faced by Ger­many’s north­ern armies. Now de­fend­ing that ground against the ad­vanc­ing Al­lies, Lu­den­dorff tried to re­turn the fa­vor. On Septem­ber 27-28 he re­in­forced the sec­tor with ar­tillery and 20 new di­vi­sions. (Mean­while he and Hin­den­burg in­formed the kaiser that it was most def­i­nitely time for an ar­mistice.)

In 2018 a car car­ried me smoothly across the Meuse, which from the bridge ap­peared as flat and re­flec­tive as a pond. Time, work and cap­i­tal had smoothed out this place—twice. Doubt­less there were relics to find not far off the road. Amer­i­can losses here had been hor­ren­dous, in­cit­ing bru­tal adap­ta­tions. For ex­am­ple, it cost “sev­eral thou­sand ca­su­al­ties” for one divi­sion to re­duce Côte Dame Marie, “a cen­tral strong­point of the Kriemhilde Stel­lung.” And so we read of “squir­rel squads” a hun­dred yards be­hind the first wave, to shoot snipers in the trees; of sol­diers who bay­o­neted each Ger­man corpse to make sure it wasn’t fak­ing death.

The his­to­rian Ed­ward Len­gel de­scribes what hap­pened when a cer­tain Ma­jor Gen­eral Mor­ton sent the 116th Reg­i­ment against “the worst death trap east of the Meuse,” meet­ing Ger­man ma­chine guns, ar­tillery and the new Fokker straf­ing planes: The heavy ca­su­al­ties “seemed to in­di­cate that a change of tac­tics was in or­der, but Mor­ton could think of only three so­lu­tions— more ar­tillery, more men, and greater drive.”

Per­sh­ing, his drive tem­po­rar­ily stalled, re­sumed the at­tack on Oc­to­ber 4, fight­ing “hard.” On Oc­to­ber 29, the enemy with­drew fi­nally to the west bank of the Meuse—yet an­other vic­tory for all time. (Hitler’s troops would re­turn ex­actly there in 1940.)

All told, 1.2 mil­lion Amer­i­can sol­diers suf­fered 122,000 ca­su­al­ties from the be­gin­ning of the of­fen­sive to the ar­mistice. For me, at least, this de­tail casts a cer­tain chill on the fol­low­ing sen­ten­tious words from a book about the of­fen­sive: “Mid­west­ern farm boys had be­come men. Men had be­come sol­diers. And sol­diers had be­come com­rades.” Well, they were all com­rades here, for a fact. Had their war ac­tu­ally ended all wars, their deaths would have felt less fu­tile to me.

But let’s be cheer­ful: Back when the War would surely end all wars, the Al­lies broke through at Salonika, fi­nally de­feat­ing the Bul­gar­i­ans, and the Ital­ians pen­e­trated the Aus­trian lines.

On Oc­to­ber 26, Lu­den­dorff, who wished to fight on, dis­cov­ered that his res­ig­na­tion had been ac­cepted. On Oc­to­ber 30 the kaiser, lay­ing the ground­work for a nar­ra­tive about a left­ist-Jewish plot, said: “I would not dream of aban­don­ing the throne be­cause of a few hun­dred Jews and a thou­sand work­ers.” He now got an even nas­tier shock than Lu­den­dorff, be­ing forced to flee that crude, cramped old wooden crown with its ribs like the rem­nant of a dis­sected onion and the squat cross on top. He lived in the Nether­lands un­til his death in 1941— just long enough to en­joy a Ger­man honor guard posted out­side his moated res­i­dence. ON NOVEM­BER 1 , the Ger­mans fell back to their fi­nal po­si­tion on the Hin­den­burg Line. On Novem­ber 6, the Al­lies

What then did the Great War ac­com­plish?

In the words of All Quiet on the Western

Front, “The war has ru­ined us for


fi­nally re­duced Sedan, and some­time that month the Amer­i­cans lib­er­ated Ver­dun!

And so fi­nally came the ar­mistice: Novem­ber 11, 1918.

The event cer­tainly de­serves a cel­e­bra­tory ci­ta­tion. Here it is, cour­tesy of Cpl. Harold Pierce, 28th Divi­sion, Sec­ond Army: “It seems so fool­ish to keep up the killing till the last minute. But the killing the ar­tillery does is so im­per­sonal and miles away. He [sic] can­not see the tor­tured, hor­ri­ble looks of the slaugh­tered or feel the re­morse the dough­boy feels when he sees a man he has shot.” WHAT BROUGHT ABOUT the happy vic­tory? Shall we be re­duc­tion­ist? We could thank Gen­eral Haig for at­tri­tion, or say “hur­rah” to the Amer­i­cans, or praise Mar­shal Foch’s uni­fy­ing com­mand, or speak of tech­ni­cal de­vel­op­ments, or­ga­ni­za­tional learn­ing, ac­ci­dents. We all cen­ter the world around our own pre- oc­cu­pa­tions. Lawrence of Ara­bia for his part as­serted that “when Damascus fell, the East­ern War—prob­a­bly the whole war—drew to an end.” My own taste is drawn to Weapons and Tac­tics’ par­tic­u­lar sim­pli­fi­ca­tion: “In 1918 tanks won a great war.”

What then did the Great War ac­com­plish? At least 8.5 mil­lion bel­liger­ents died, not to men­tion a mere 12 mil­lion or 13 mil­lion civil­ians. Some op­ti­mist some­where must have pointed out that it kept the pop­u­la­tion down. The sur­vivors had their own dif­fi­cul­ties. In the words of All Quiet on the Western Front, “The war has ru­ined us for every­thing.”

Am I too cyn­i­cal about this war? In Oc­to­ber 1918, a Croa­t­ian in­sur­rec­tion­ist cried out: “The peo­ple rise in or­der to de­liver free­dom with their blood and over the whole world Wilson’s prin­ci­ples en­joy vic­tory.” An in­de­pen­dent Cze­choslo­vakia came into be­ing that same month; soon after, a free Poland. But in th­ese na­tions, and like­wise in the “new Ro­ma­nia swollen with ex-Hun­gar­ian ter­ri­tory,” one-third of the peo­ple were deemed eth­ni­cally “other.” (One re­sult: con­tin­u­ing ha­treds and atroc­i­ties.)

A hun­dred years later, Croa­tia had flick­ered through by­gone Yu­goslavia; Cze­choslo­vakia had split; Poland, Hun­gary and Ro­ma­nia had gone in and out of bondage, al­tered shape and be­gun to swell with right-wing

DEAD­LOCKED The Ger­man in­va­sion in Au­gust 1914 came so close to Paris the French gov­ern­ment soon fled to Bordeaux, but later in Septem­ber the Al­lies pushed the front back be­yond the Marne. For nearly four years gains were more of­ten mea­sured in yards than in miles.



A Ger­man of­fen­sive in spring 1918 gained un­prece­dented swaths of ter­ri­tory, but in July the Al­lies coun­ter­at­tacked. When they smashed through Ger­many’s for­ti­fied de­fen­sive po­si­tions along the Hin­den­burg Line the war’s end was close at hand.


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